New Regents Professor is a player-coach who knows how to win

February 15, 2022

Dave MacKinnon went from hockey fame to scoring goals for ASU’s psychology department

Dave MacKinnon’s body suffered several injuries after years of playing hockey: a concussion, a separated shoulder, broken teeth and stitches in strange places.

“At 17, I thought it was cool to say I had stitches in my tongue,” MacKinnon said.

Decades later, it can boast of more substantial things. Like the fact that he is now considered one of Arizona State University’s top scholars.

MacKinnon was recently inaugurated as one of four Regent Professors for 2022, and news of the elite designation was both a surprise and an honor.

“Given the people I know who are regent professors, I’m honored to be in this group,” said MacKinnon, who is a Foundation professor at the Department of Psychology in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “I’m very proud that this comes from Arizona State University, which has been my home for 32 years now.”

Video of David MacKinnon named Regents Professor at Arizona State University

Regents Professor is the faculty’s highest honor and is awarded to tenured professors who have made outstanding achievements that have earned them national attention and international distinction.

Less than 3% of all ASU faculty carry the distinction.

“For more than three decades, Professor MacKinnon has enriched the College’s Department of Psychology with his dedication to student achievement and innovation,” said Patrick Kenney, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of the Foundation at ASU. School of Politics and Global Studies. “His contributions to the field of psychology, particularly the use of cutting-edge and sophisticated approaches to evaluate the effectiveness of prevention and intervention programs, both at ASU and beyond, make him worthy of the honor of Regents Professor. We are grateful to have him within the College community.

MacKinnon is recognized worldwide as a leader in quantitative psychology – the application of statistics to help understand psychology. His main area of ​​expertise is preventing problems before they occur. His quantitative approaches have allowed scientists from many disciplines to go beyond determining the impact of their interventions on an outcome of interest to determining how those effects occur. He has also applied these approaches to develop and refine interventions that address some of the most pressing issues of modern times, including adolescent substance abuse prevention.

Human behavior has interested MacKinnon since he was a youngster living in a blue-collar section of Dedham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.

“Growing up in a neighborhood of small homes and large families gave me early exposure to many types of positive and negative behaviors,” MacKinnon said. “And there was a lot of unusual behavior and conflict in the 1960s and early 70s.”

MacKinnon said sports, especially hockey, keep her and her three brothers grounded. And they happened to be good at it – exceptionally good. All of the MacKinnon brothers played in college, and MacKinnon and two of his brothers played professionally in Europe. MacKinnon, who also played baseball and ran cross country in high school, was a left winger in hockey, with some success scoring goals. Successful enough that he started getting letters from college coaches when he was a freshman in high school.

“Of course those letters went to my head,” laughed MacKinnon. “I would say high school was my crazy years where I got off the rails a bit. Luckily for me, I had people give me honest feedback about things in my life, and that helped me.

Dave MacKinnon in high school.

It didn’t hurt that MacKinnon was naturally brilliant. He took advanced courses in math, biology, and chemistry, and attracted interest from many schools, but eventually attended Harvard University.

He found Division I hockey to be demanding and the level of athleticism a few notches above what he was used to.

“I made the varsity hockey team as a sophomore, which was an achievement, but it was a constant effort to save playing time because everyone was so good,” MacKinnon said. “I had all the time, effort and responsibility of a Division I athlete.”

This meant that his love for hockey would eventually conflict with his studies. It came to a head after a hockey game at Dartmouth. A snowstorm had delayed the team’s return to Cambridge.

“I had a financial aid job washing dishes, and my supervisor wasn’t happy that I was late,” said MacKinnon, who also bartender, drove a truck, gardened, painted and performed construction work throughout his academic career. “It started the process where I left hockey to focus more on science.”

During his second year at Harvard, MacKinnon received accolades from his psychology and statistics professors.

While working on his honors thesis, “The Role of Frustration in Alcohol Consumption,” MacKinnon studied the psychological impact of alcohol on rats. The experiment didn’t work, but he says he learned valuable insights into the research.

“I found the whole aspect of addiction fascinating in that it’s very difficult for people to change their behavior once you’ve developed certain habits,” said MacKinnon, who went on to earn his master’s degree and his doctorate at UCLA. “I wanted to find a way to help people who wanted to change their behavior.”

MacKinnon figured there had to be another way. Instead of examining drug use by guessing what might work, maybe there was a scientific approach to solving the problem? He did this through a new method at the time, which used mathematics to find a way to study how change occurs.

Beginning in the late 1980s, when MacKinnon was an assistant professor at USC, he began using and improving mediation analyzes to better understand how drug prevention programs work. This type of research can uncover why certain programs work for some but not for others. Mediation analysis is one of the most powerful tools used today by scientists who develop interventions to prevent social, mental health, physical, and school problems.

MacKinnon has used mediation analysis to understand how drug prevention programs work for college kids, how steroid prevention programs work for high school football players, and how health interventions work for firefighters and forces. of the order.

ASU recognized the impact of MacKinnon’s work and hired him as an assistant professor in 1990. To date, MacKinnon’s work has led to over 200 publications and a MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) from the National Institutes of Drug Abuse, an honor given only to the handful of research programs that receive the highest possible rating. Since 2014, MacKinnon has twice been named to the top 1% of researchers based on the number of times his publications were cited.

MacKinnon founded the Prevention Research Laboratory in 1997. Since then, the lab has generated numerous research grants and trained many undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students in psychology, and enhanced the national reputation of the department.

While at ASU, MacKinnon taught many outstanding students and extended mediation methods to assess change. This earned him an Outstanding Mentor Award from ASU in 2007 and a Teaching/Mentoring Award from the American Psychological Association in 2021.

He said mentoring has many similarities to the teamwork ethic in sports.

“A team united in purpose can do amazing things together,” MacKinnon said. “Combining individual talent, collaborative teamwork and diligence can solve thorny scientific problems.”

To date, MacKinnon has advised 20 students for their doctorate in psychology. One of them is Heather Smyth, who gives it high marks.

“Professor MacKinnon has a lot of wisdom and is extremely patient in how he imparts that wisdom,” said Smyth, who is working on her PhD in quantitative psychology. “It basically shows you, ‘Here’s the sandbox, and I’ll be there if you need anything or have any questions. You’re going to play and figure this out on your own. When you get stuck, I’ll help you.

“So we feel very independent, but also in a supportive and secure environment.”

MacKinnon is nearing overtime on his college career, but he still wants to play and score for his team.

“It is a great honor to work at ASU. I like the approach we have here at the university,” MacKinnon said. “I also like that ASU has all these sports that I can play after work. And now I will soon be able to walk and watch a hockey game in our own arena.

Kimberlee D’Ardenne of ASU’s Department of Psychology contributed to this article.

Top photo: Foundation Professor Dave MacKinnon was recently named Regents Professor for his work quantifying the analysis of alcohol addiction therapies. In addition to his work in understanding interventions, he also mentors graduate students in the field. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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